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Clean food

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Fry Family Farm and Whistling Duck were among the first to go all in on organic farming locally
Fry Family Farm store outside Medford. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
Whistling Duck Farm, one of the earliest organic operations in the area, has a Farm Store, located in the Big Red Barn on the farm, at 12800 Williams Highway (Hwy. 238). [Courtesy photo]
Specialty jams and jelly are for sale at the Fry Family Farm store. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
Fresh produce for sale at the Fry Family Farm store. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]

In the early 1980s, organic farming wasn’t on most people’s radar.

At the time, Steve Fry and his wife, Suzi, had a restaurant in Santa Cruz, California, and a few friends were interested in farming without pesticides.

“The organic industry was being born, it was in its infancy,” Fry said.

They sold the restaurant and decided to farm near Horse Creek in Siskiyou County near Yreka, California.

“I was selling what I was grow-ing in Horse Creek in Ashland,” he recalled. “In Yreka you’re a hippie, but here you’re a hippie but they love you.”

That love affair turned Medford-based Fry Family Farm into a local organic institution.

Fry and another farm, Whistling Duck, are among the pioneers who set the stage for a wave of organic farming locally.

When they started, others joined the food revolution, but the farming life is a hard one, Fry said.

“The people my age invented the business, and we get pushed out,” Fry said.

Even so, two of his five daughters want to follow in their parents’ footsteps and are pitching in to help run the farm.

The Fry family moved to Talent after a few years in Horse Creek.

“At the time, we were selling at the (Ashland) co-op with some others from the Applegate,” he remembers.

“A produce woman at the store told me we wouldn’t make it.”

Hardly anyone was producing organic food at the time, even though there was a huge demand for it, Fry said.

But the produce — and learning to deal with the bugs without resorting to pesticides — was difficult to grow.

“It wasn’t the prettiest stuff you’ve ever seen,” Fry said. “That meant I had to learn fast.”

Other growers had created Oregon Tilth, a nonprofit advocating for organic farming, in 1974, which helped set the standards.

Fry said he still does a lot of business in Eugene and Portland, and also sells his products at local stores as well as the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market.

Fry Family Farm now has up to 90 acres under cultivation, and it’s a 100% organic farm.

“My biggest concern is, ‘Where’s the money going to come from to keep this going?’” Fry said.

As a result, he’s diversified, with a farm store at 2184 Ross Lane, just outside Medford, along with a ware-house where people can rent out space.

He’s also got a kitchen with a pizza oven, but maintaining an organic food preparation facility keeps him on his toes.

“It’s just a record-keeping nightmare,” he said.

In the future, the Frys plan to expand their offerings and become an attraction for organic farm enthusiasts and those who want to sample organic food.

Fry said it would be a tough business to break into nowadays, pointing out that many large corporations are now in the organic farm business.

“The farming model is brutal,” he said.

Passionate about organic farming, Fry said he still can eat just about anything, but he says he can taste the difference when he bites into something that has been mass produced.

“The more industrial the farms become, the deader the food becomes,” he said.

Whistling Duck’s Mary Alionis and her husband, Vince, moved from Dallas to Berkley, California, and began looking around for land in Ukiah and Willits, in Northern California, as part of a grant-funded farming project.

Then the Loma Prieta earthquake struck in 1989, and the grant funding dried up.

After some searching they found a little farm near Shady Cove, and they started to grow garlic in 1991, eventually moving to another property around Trail. They started selling at a farmer’s market in Phoenix.

“We sold to tons of restaurants in Ashland in the 1990s,” Alionis said.

Eventually they bought 22.7 acres in 2003 at 12800 Williams Highway, Grants Pass, where they have a store and a certified organic kitchen, where they make fermented products such as krauts and kimchee.

“We’re getting ready to launch our fermented salad dressings into local stores,” Alionis said.

She said it’s hard to make a living on organic farming in this valley. Local consumers are particularly price sensitive. In Washington, growers can get twice the price compared to the Rogue Valley, Alionis said.

“We have some of the highest land prices in the country and lowest food prices,” she said.

The local marijuana industry has also had a huge impact on the farmers in the valley.

Alionis said her farm grew hemp for CBD and related oils for a couple of years. She said the oil will be put into various food items for sale.

Whistling Duck sells organic seeds, including for garlic and corn.

Alionis said her son and daughter also help out at the farm.

Local organic farms can be sampled at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market, which is held Tuesdays and Saturdays in Ashland and Thursdays in Medford.

The market features produce and other foods and crafts from the region.

“This will be our 35th season this year,” said Jaimie Griffin, executive director of the market.

The pandemic has taken its toll on the number of vendors, as have several particularly difficult smoky periods. Before the pandemic the market featured up to 160 vendors but is now at 115 or slightly fewer.

Griffin said Fry Family Farm and Whistling Duck are definitely pioneers in the local organic farming community.

“The amount of organic farmers has increased over the years,” she added.

She said there has been more of a shift toward organic practices among farmers, noting that the certification process to become an organic farmer is a costly undertaking.

“We even see a shift with our processed food vendors, who are using more organics,” she said.